Meeting Sinterklaas: a brain story

This post is also available in Dutch.

It’s ‘present night’ in the Netherlands this Saturday! Sinterklaas will bring presents to the good children. Did you behave well this year? Are you ready to meet him, and is your brain ready for this too? 


What’s happening in your brain when you meet Sinterklaas in real life?

First, the image is received on our retina, and projected to the back of the eye. This image is currently reversed because the eye is comparable to the lens of a camera – what we see is flipped upside down. So, our brain needs to flip it back the right way.


The image is then transmitted to the back of the brain. This region is called the occipital cortex because it’s against the bone called “occiput”. In Latin, occiput means “back of the skull”.  Makes sense, right?


Next, visual information is sent to the side of the brain, just behind the temple. This is where the temporal cortex is located. These names for brain areas are easy, aren’t they?  Here, objects are recognized, and compared to your prior knowledge e.g., what you already know about Sinterklaas: A white horse, a red hat, a stick, a white beard …  Oh! Your brain get’s it, it’s Sinterklaas!


Of course, when you think about “Sinterklaas” you probably also think about the fact that good kids will receive candy and presents , and bad kids will get a punishment (the roe). This related information is recalled by another part in the temporal cortex.


Now, you will probably receive one of the two from Sinterklaas: a present or the roe. Presents such as candy are a reward for good kids. Getting candies will activate pleasure centers in the brain. Eating them too, of course. When we receive a reward, we learn to have a positive association with that reward.  In the future, this association drives our motivation, and (usually) gets us to behave in the same way: to be a good kid.


Punishment, on the other hand, involves other regions in the brain, like the amygdala. The amygdala responds to fear.  This area puts a stop to the activity in the pleasure centers, reducing motivation.  This is potentially problematic because it drives away motivation for good behaviour.  For this reason, it is suggested that teaching is coupled with rewards for good behaviour, which in this case reinforces the pleasure of learning instead of pushing it away.

Nowadays, the story of Sinterklaas has evolved and focuses less on punishment.  Perhaps this is because of the knowledge we’ve gained about motivation and behaviour by studying the brain!  This is evident from the influence of brain research already on education methodologies.

read more: 
Brain from top to bottom

This blog is written by Roselyne  and can be read in Dutch here

Edited by Romy and Nietzsche

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